From personal experience, I know authors struggle with what to title their books. The goal is to give readers a sense of what the book is about and to choose something memorable, but not so memorable it gets used too often, possibly creating confusion when the reader searches for the book. (In the U.S., titles are not copyrightable, so any number of authors and publishers can use the same title.) Two of my favorite thrillers have the same title: Still Life.
Casey Marshall is a businesswoman who suffers severe injuries from being hit by a car. She's plunged into a coma, but she gradually becomes aware of what's happening around her. She can hear, at least some of the time, but can't move, see, or communicate. Despite that, Fielding makes her a proactive main character who does everything she can within the (significant) limits placed upon her. I found every moment fascinating as Casey begins to realize the people she loves might not be quite who she thought they were, and the “accident” may have been an attempt on her life.
Like Joy Fielding's book, I couldn't put this one down. It is a more traditional suspense novel in that there is a detective–Chief Inspector Gamache. Yet it is distinctive in several ways. While Casey exists almost in a vacuum due to her coma, the mystery here is grounded in Three Pines, a small town in Canada that almost becomes a character in itself. The residents include an accomplished aging poet, several artists, a former psychologist turned bookstore owner, and proprietors of a beautiful bistro that is also an antique shop. The murder victim is a beloved long-time resident of the town, murdered just after she's been brave enough at last to enter a painting in an art show and has learned she's been accepted. She has no enemies that anyone's aware of, and no one can imagine who would kill her.
Point of View
Joy Fielding's book is told from a single point of view, that of Casey Marshall. The reader knows only what Casey hears and understands. Louise Penny's novel is told from multiple points of view, sometimes within the same scene, which at first I found a bit distracting. In the end, though, seeing the town, the crime, and the resolution from so many viewpoints added layers to the story. It also added to my desire to live in Three Pines, or at least visit regularly.
The Meaning of the Title
The most obvious meaning of the title of the Joy Fielding book is that the protagonist is literally still, due to her coma, and yet is more alive than anyone realizes. Still Life also reflects some of Casey's realizations about her pre-coma life.
In the Louise Penny book, the title in part refers to the artists in the town and their work. But it also reflects aspects of life in the town in ways that shed light on the mystery.
Tone and Title
Still Life by Joy Fielding is tense and suspenseful, with little relief from Casey's fear. Still Life by Louis Penny has a mixed tone. Despite beginning in an atmosphere somewhat like that of a cozy mystery, the people and events have dark sides and twists. A few times I found the humor a bit buffoonish given the darkness of the story as a whole; however, I enjoyed the book so much it didn't matter.
If you enjoy suspense or mysteries, I highly recommend both Still Lifes. They are among my favorite thrillers of all time.